“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”1 John 3:16 NIV
A Meditation on Eastman Johnson’s The Girl I Left Behind Me
By Adam R. Nettesheim
Sometimes I wonder… “how can we ever go back?”
when I see the growing fear and anger being displayed all around us; as divisive videos are forwarded on social media; people yelling at each other in stores; and our national leaders standing on statehouse steps accusing other leaders of malice and selfish motives on both sides of the political spectrum;
as we face yet another election and simmering racial strife causing hurt within our communities—as I see how we hurt each other…and because of my sorrow, my thoughts turn back to the time of the Civil War.
Lest we forget, it is important to remember that our country, these “United States of America” went to war over the practice of enslaving a portion of God’s dearly loved children… based solely on the color of their skin. By doing this, our nation broke something profound and holy with God. And just as our nation was broken in two by this reckoning, we are still feeling the mighty ache of its consequences today.
Despite all the horrors of this war, our nation came fourth as one people again. We were not split in two. To do this, we had to find a way to heal the divisions and mend the aches. But we also needed to find a way to repent of the sins that caused the war and the sins that came during the war and the sins that were yet to be born because of the war. Despite the brokenness that would become beyond our power to fully heal, we found a way forward– together– yet never the same. Certainly, since slavery was wrongly and deeply woven into the fabric of our nation, it tore and wounded much as it was removed. To this pain of repentance was added the wound perpetrated by turning brother against brother which created a deeper divide. The cycle beginning with Cain and Abel continues…
I still wonder: “How can we go back and how can we move forward?”
The Girl I Left Behind Me is a painting brought forth during this American Civil War. Eastman Johnson painted it in 1872 and it hangs in the Smithsonian American Art museum. The exhibition label reads as follows:
“A girl stands on a promontory, her hair streaming in the wind. The path before her trails off, so she must either retrace her steps or try to find her way forward. Her wedding ring speaks to a commitment to her union and a husband who has gone to war. The split-rail fence below and the fog surrounding her speak to a world fraught with division and ambivalence. Johnson’s figure appears to be waiting for some sign of what will come next. The title comes from a Regimental song.”
As I observe the scene inside this painting, I am drawn into the melancholy feeling of this girl’s thoughts and I understand what the artists might have intended. Amazing how this painting of so long ago finds resonance with me now and I encourage you to spend a few moments here. Allow yourself to wonder: “How can we go back and how can we move forward?”
Like Eastman Johnson’s girl, we all will stand windswept, divided, distant and unsure looking to the future and wondering how to move forward. In our own time, each of us will stand at a divide and look around to see that we must learn to move forward. I am reminded of a line from the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King when Frodo wonders – “How do you pick up the threads of an old life? How do you go on, when in your heart you begin to understand… there is no going back? There are some things that time cannot mend. Some hurts that go too deep, that have taken hold.”
One thing I know for sure is that whenever we are given a sense of freedom again and are able to gather again; we will not be the same people. We have left a part of ourselves behind as we’ve gone into the terrors of the war of a global pandemic and financial crisis. We remember the loved ones who have died, the jobs that are gone, our precious sense of invulnerability striped away, and in some measure our hope–lost.
In spite of all this, one day, just as the Civil War, this time of isolation will end. Knowing this we continue to wait.
But what cannot wait is this: We must learn to love each other again. Just as in the Civil War, we have seen division of brother against brother and because of this we are not only seeing the cracks of time in our institutions but in our relationships too. Whether you are the family in lockdown trying hard not to address a brewing disconnection or seeing the friend on Facebook who is sharing blogs and making comments that inflame frustrations. Whether you despair at political hypocrisy or a loved one’s refusal to acknowledge it so their political preferences can have power, or your church is divided on how to properly respond to reopening.
Stop and ask yourself: How have you tried to engage? We can all hope that it is not from a desire to be proven right but out of love for those we are engaging with. How much have you swallowed out of love for those you love? How much have you tried to assume the “best of” for those who you are in community with? How much have you held your breaking heart together with hope and grace and faith and love lest you lash out and say something that would finish off the tearing division for good?
To heal and to move forward in health, we must be able to have challenging conversations. We must be able to live honestly while also accepting our own fallibility. We must be able to advocate for those we love even when it will be uncomfortable to hear and to say. And while we do this, we must also learn to bear one another’s burdens.
That phrase has befuddled me from time to time. I thought it meant making someone else’s issues your own. Certainly there is a time to put your shoulder to the cross that someone else carries and help relieve the weight of their burden for a time so they don’t fall. But in the end, it will always be their cross.
On that day when Jesus struggled under the weight of his cross, the ones who helped to bear his burden were just as much Mary, John and the other women who gathered at the foot of the cross as it was Simon of Cyrene. All of these faithful disciples kept vigil in community with Jesus as he suffered and died. Even when they, as scripture seems to indicate, didn’t understand.
We are all going to need each other before this is all over. And so we must learn to keep the unity of the bonds of peace. After all, being with one another doesn’t mean let the loudest and pushiest among you win and we all must go along with the bullies to keep the peace. But it does mean to love one another and agree that the One that United us at the foot of the Cross, is higher and stronger and more lasting than any of the issues that may divide us.
There is so much we have yet to learn and so much that we don’t understand. There is so much we think we comprehend but in reality we just don’t have a grasp on the whole picture yet. Shall we resolve to not let our fear of the unknown divide us from each other?
Let us act justly and love with mercy so we might walk humbly before God.
What more can we expect of our brothers? Think how much stronger we will be as together we follow our Savior into whatever challenges that come next.
May God’s Peace Be With You!
“Then he told them what they could expect for themselves: “Anyone who intends to come with me has to let me lead. You’re not in the driver’s seat—I am. Don’t run from suffering; embrace it. Follow me and I’ll show you how. Self-help is no help at all. Self-sacrifice is the way, my way, to finding yourself, your true self.”Luke 9:23-24 MSG
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human ! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.”Philippians 2:5-8 MSG
“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”Romans 5:8 NIV
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”John 3:16 NIV